Drone Laws in the US 2020 – Commercial and Recreational Regulations for UAVs

By Pilot Institute
Posted on April 28, 2020 - 18 minute read
Table of Contents

Some may think of drone flight as a mere hobby, but the FAA likens drone flight more to driving a car. It’s a perfectly legal activity for someone at the right physical and mental condition, but certain rules have to be set in place in the interest of everyone’s safety.

If you have a new drone or are thinking of getting a drone, then now is the perfect time to read up on the US laws on drone flight. Some of these laws apply to different drone applications, and there may even be laws unique to the state or city where you are planning to fly your drone.

Recreational drone pilots

Just to get this discussion point out of the way, there are different drone laws that apply to drone pilots who fly for fun and those who fly for other purposes. As you would expect, the rules on recreational drone flights are a bit laxer while still adhering to the FAA’s objective of maintaining airspace safety.

The relevant laws for recreational drone pilots are outlined in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018, which started implementation in May 2019. This set of rules superseded all previous guidelines set forth for recreational drone pilots. Although currently in force, some of the provisions under this act have not been implemented while the FAA is still working on a few matters.

Right now, these are the rules that recreational drone pilots need to follow:

Fly your drone strictly for recreational purposes

The most important rule for recreational drone flight is to make sure that you are flying your drone ONLY for fun. This means that you are not allowed to receive any form of payment for your operations and that you are not flying your drone in aid of a business.

According to the FAA, the intent of drone flight needs to be determined at the moment of take-off. This means that you need to decide which set of rules you’re going to fly with before you even start flying. For instance, you can fly a drone and taking aerial photos at night if you’re doing it for fun, but selling the photos online without the proper waiver would be considered illegal.

This rule also applies to those who have the certification to fly commercially.

Flying a drone commercially without the proper certification or in violation of the FAA’s rules is a serious offense that can result in both civil and criminal liabilities.

Register your drone with the FAA

The FAA requires recreational drone pilots to register their drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds and less than 55 pounds. This is done through the FAA DroneZone website. Make sure  to register under ‘The Exception for Recreational Flyers.’ To register a drone, a drone pilot must be at least 13 years of age and a US citizen or a legal permanent resident.

To sign up for an account on the FAA DroneZone website, you will need to provide a valid e-mail address, a physical address, and a credit or debit card to pay the $5 registration fee. Recreational drone pilots may register multiple drones under a single registration number but will need to mark all their drones visibly with the unique registration number.

Do not fly in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E) without obtaining airspace authorization

Controlled airspace refers to the sections of airspace that regularly receive a high density of air traffic. These are typically found near airports, and their size and shape vary based on the level of air traffic that the airport facility receives.

By default, drone flight in controlled airspace is prohibited. This rule was established to avoid close encounters between drones and manned aircraft, which is one of the biggest problems that the FAA seeks to address with drone-related regulations. However, drone flight in controlled airspace can be legal if you secure the proper airspace authorization.

Airspace authorization for both recreational and commercial drone pilots is possible through the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) system. This is a system that is accessible through several common drone flight apps which allows drone pilots to request airspace authorization and receive a response in just a few minutes. This is possible through an automated system that checks the details of requests against airspace data sources and current TFRs and NOTAMs.

The LAANC system was primarily designed for commercial drone pilots and the service was later expanded for drone pilots who fly recreationally. Thus, LAANC support for recreational drone pilots is still quite limited. Right now, there are only five apps that support LAANC authorization for recreational drone pilots – Kittyhawk, UASidekick, AirMap, Altitude Angel, and Thales Group.

When requesting for airspace authorization, make sure that you make the request under the recreational flight rules and the drone you will be using has already been registered.

Fly your drone below 400 feet above ground level when flying in uncontrolled airspace

Take note that this rule has no exception for recreational drone pilots, regardless of the presence of any structures in your area of operations.

Fly your drone within visual line-of-sight

To clarify this rule, visual line-of-sight needs to be established without the use of any visual enhancements, such as binoculars. It’s also possible for a visual observer or “spotter” to be the one to maintain visual line-of-sight, as long as they are co-located and in direct communication with the drone pilot.

Do not fly at night unless your drone is equipped with appropriate anti-collision lights

Recreational drone flight is allowed at night as long as the drone being used has been outfitted with lighting that allows the pilot to determine its location and orientation at all times.

Other important rules

This list contains the other important rules that must be followed for recreational flights

  • Do not fly your drone over another person or a moving vehicle
  • Give way to manned aircraft at all times
  • Do not interfere with emergency response activities
  • Do not fly your drone when under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Do not fly your drone in a reckless manner
  • Recreational drone pilots must pass an online aeronautical knowledge and safety test (UNDER DEVELOPMENT)

One of the provisions listed under the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 states that recreational drone pilots must also pass a knowledge and safety test before they will be allowed to evaporate. As of April 2020, this has not yet been implemented.

The latest update on this topic was published by the FAA in December 2019, stating that they are working with a group of stakeholders to develop the content of the test and make recommendations on how the test will be administered.

Commercial drone pilots

The rules for commercial drone flights in the US are a bit more expansive in an attempt to strike a balance between regulating the industry and making sure that the industry continues to thrive and contribute to the economy. Most of the rules for commercial drone flights directly overlap with those for recreational drone pilots, so we won’t need to discuss all of them in detail. Instead, we’re going to focus on the key differences.

The 14 CFR Part 107, which the FAA implemented in 2016, is the legal framework that provides the rules for commercial drone flight in the US. The rules below summarize the contents of Part 107:

Commercial drone pilots are required to secure a Part 107 remote pilot certificate

The most important provision listed under Part 107 requires drone pilots to secure a remote pilot certificate or “drone license” before they are legally allowed to operate their drones commercially. The drone license acts as proof that the drone pilot has satisfied the proficiency and knowledge standards set by the FAA for commercial drone pilots.

A detailed discussion of the requirements for Part 107 certification will be provided in the next section of this article.

Your drone must be registered with the FAA

The process for registering a drone to be used for commercial activities isn’t that different from that for drones to be used recreationally. The only differences are that commercial drone pilots need to register their drones regardless of weight and that they need to register multiple drones individually. This means that they will need to pay the $5 registration fee multiple times if they have multiple drones.

All this can be done through the FAA DroneZone website, making sure to choose the option to register under Part 107. The registration must be renewed every 3 years.

Drone flight is prohibited in controlled airspace (Class B, C, D, and E) unless you have airspace authorization

As with recreational drone flight, commercial drone flight is prohibited in controlled airspace by default. However, Part 107-licensed drone pilots have the option of requesting for airspace authorization using the LAANC capability.

Since LAANC was designed primarily for commercial drone pilots, they enjoy the privilege of access to LAANC through more drone flight apps. Right now, the FAA lists nine apps that allow commercial drone pilots to make requests through LAANC, including Aeronyde, AiRXOS, and Skyward, among others.

You are only allowed to fly your drone during daylight. Drone flight during twilight is allowed only with proper anti-collision lights

Unlike recreational drone pilots, commercial drone pilots are only allowed to fly at daylight under normal circumstances. Flights during twilight (30 minutes before sunrise or after sunset) are allowed but only if the drone is equipped with anti-collision lights that allow the drone pilot to keep track of the drone’s position and orientation at all times.

While licensed drone pilots have the option of applying for a waiver to fly drones at night, the FAA has recently expressed an intention of softening their stance on night flying. In a document published by the FAA in January 2019, they have proposed removing this restriction, instead requiring pilots to undergo training for “night physiology and night illusions.”

It is still unclear when this proposal will move to implementation.

Commercial drone flight is allowed only to an altitude of 400 feet above ground level in uncontrolled airspace, but drone pilots can fly higher if they remain within 400 feet of a structure

While recreational drone pilots are under a blanket restriction to fly only within a 400-foot altitude limit, commercial drone pilots are given a leeway to overcome this limit if they flying within 400 feet of a large structure such as a tower or a mountain in uncontrolled airspace.

The justification behind this exception is that manned aircraft are expected to similarly adjust their cruising altitudes when they fly over these structures, ensuring that the safety buffer between them and the drones is still maintained. Thus, drones are allowed to fly at an altitude that is within 400 feet of the highest point of the structure.

Do not fly your drone over people who are not participating in the activity or over a moving vehicle

The Part 107 rule makes a clear distinction between people who are involved in your drone operations and those that have given their consent. While drone flight over your crew (co-pilots or visual observers) is allowed, drone flight over spectators is prohibited even if they have given you their permission. This will include guests at a wedding or the crowds in a sports event.

This rule also states that drone flight over moving vehicles or any vehicle that is being actively operated is prohibited.

On the other hand, the FAA has also expressed an intention to relax the rules on drone flight over people. This comes at the onset of safer drone technologies, including ultra-portable drones or drones that can be equipped with parachute systems. The FAA has already prepared a proposal for the new rule where drones will be classified into categories depending on how much risk they pose should they crash. As with the proposal that allows for drone flight at night, there’s no indication yet of when this will become part of the rules.

  • The drone can only fly up to a maximum ground speed of 100 mph
  • You must yield the right of way to manned aircraft at all times
  • You cannot fly a drone from a moving vehicle, except in sparsely populated areas
  • You are only allowed to fly a drone that weighs less than 55 pounds, including the payload

The Part 107 drone license only allows for the use of drones that weigh less than 55 pounds. Any heavier than this and you will need to get a Section 333 exemption, which is a much more stringent certification process.

Commercial drone pilots must secure a waiver if they wish to fly in conditions that are normally restricted

The FAA recognizes that commercial drone pilots may need to accept jobs that require them to fly in conditions that are normally prohibited by Part 107. To ensure that the commercial drone industry is not hampered by these rules, the FAA has allowed licensed drone pilots to apply for waivers for a selected list of Part 107 restrictions. The list of restrictions is as follows:

  • Operations at night
  • Operations over a populated area
  • Operations beyond visual line-of-sight
  • Operations over restricted airspace
  • Operations from a moving vehicle
  • Operations of multiple drones by a single drone pilot

So far, the FAA has granted nearly 4000 waivers since the inception of Part 107. The waiver application process is quite tedious, requiring drone pilots to submit detailed descriptions of their planned operations, a list of anticipated risks, and a list of corresponding mitigating measures. It can also take a lot of time for a waiver request to be processed – the FAA recommends a maximum processing time of 90 days.

Fortunately, the recent proposals by the FAA should greatly reduce the number of waiver requests that they need to process. If they can push for drone flight at night to be allowed, that alone will lessen their load for processing of waiver requests by about 95%.

Part 107-licensed drone pilots bring proof of their certification whenever they operate commercially

Commercial drone pilots may be required by authorized personnel to present their remote pilot certificate whenever they fly their drones for profit. These personnel may include representatives from the TSA or FAA, or local law enforcement.

Certification requirements for commercial drone pilots

With the Part 107 remote pilot certificate, the FAA can document all commercial drone pilots and make sure that they are operating within the FAA’s standards of proficiency and knowledge. For a drone pilot to operate legally under these legal bounds, they must go through the following steps:

Satisfy the minimum qualifications

Before a drone pilot can even apply for a Part 107 drone license, they must satisfy the following qualities:

  • Be at least 16 years of age
  • Be able to read, write, speak, and understand English
  • Be physically and mentally fit to fly a drone

Applicants must then secure an FAA Tracking Number (FTN) by signing up for an account in the Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application (IACRA) website. The FTN will serve as the drone pilot’s unique identified throughout their whole career in aviation.

Pass the Part 107 knowledge test

With the FTN on hand, drone pilots can proceed to sign up for the Part 107 knowledge test. The test is administered by Computer Assisted Testing Services, Inc (CATS) and can be taken in any of their more than 700 FAA-certified testing centers across the US. CATS will charge a $160 testing fee upon signing up.

The Part 107 knowledge test is the major requirement for earning the drone license. It is a 60-item multiple-choice test that covers a range of aviation-related topics including reading sectional charts, airspace classifications, meteorological conditions, drone loading and performance, interpreting METAR weather reports and NOTAMs, and understanding standard radio language. The test needs to be completed with two hours, and you must get 70% of the answers correctly to pass.

If you pass the test, then you can move on to the next step of the process. If not, then you have the option of retaking the knowledge test after 14 calendar days. However, the testing fee cannot be refunded.

Clear the TSA background check

Once you have proof of your successful test results, you may submit an application for the Part 107 drone license via the IACRA website. This will forward your application to the TSA who will then do a background check on your before you can be granted a license.

Based on the experience of a lot of drone pilots, the TSA background check can take anywhere from one week to two months. They supposedly check for any aviation-related offenses, although the process is (unsurprisingly) not transparent at all. How long this step takes will also depend on how much backlog they have on applications for airmen certification.

Once you’ve passed the background check, you should receive an e-mail that contains your temporary certificate. Print this out, bring it with you, and you can start flying your drone commercially. Your permanent certificate will be sent to you by regular mail.

Take a recurrent knowledge test after 24 months

Although the remote pilot license technically doesn’t expire, the privileges for commercial drone operations granted to you when you passed the knowledge test are valid only for 24 months. Before this period expires, you will have to take a recurrent knowledge test to keep your drone license “current.”

The process for taking the recurrent knowledge test is similar to when you first took the test for certification – sign up for the test, pay the testing fee, and take it in any of the CATS testing centers. The good news is that the recurrent test is a shorter version of the certification test with a narrower scope of topics (only 40 questions).

Upon passing the recurrent test, you will need to keep a copy of your successful test results to prove that your drone license is current. You will not be issued a new drone license.

Laws on traveling with a drone

Flying is already an anxiety-inducing experience, but more so if you’re flying with an uncommon device like a drone. While the TSA has no rules that specifically address taking drones on flights, there are a few guidelines we recommend that you follow before packing that drone for your trip.

Follow the TSA rules on what batteries you can bring

Most people already know to carry any battery-operated devices or spare batteries in their hand-carry luggage. However, not many people know that the TSA has established limits on how many batteries a passenger can fly depending on the capacities of said batteries.

For batteries that have capacities of below 100 Watt-hours, there is no limit on how many units of them can be carried by a passenger. This capacity limit applies to most consumer devices such as cellphones, tablets, cameras, and laptops. However, bigger batteries – those that have capacities from 101 to 160 Watt-hours – are limited to only two pieces per passenger.

Keep in mind that airlines can also have their own sets of rules on the limits of batteries allowed for carry-on. For instance, British Airways limits each passenger to bring only up to four pieces of spare batteries, even if they are below 100 Watt-hours in capacity. Batteries bigger than 160 Watt-hours are typically prohibited for either carry-on or check-in baggage by most airlines.

Check your airline’s baggage rules

Most airlines allow drones as carry-on luggage and have pretty clear guidelines on the specific conditions for bringing drones. However, it’s still worth the time to be prudent and check the rules for your specific airline. There are a few exceptions, after all, such as the policy of Emirates that only allows drones as check-in baggage.

Save yourself the stress of making last-minute luggage requirements and call up your airline a few days before your trip.

Be transparent with the TSA

When going through security checks with a drone, it would be wise to simply surrender to the fact that the TSA is probably going to take a special interest in your carry-on luggage. After all, a person flying with a drone is still not a common sight. Prepare for a closer inspection by putting your drone inside an easily accessible bag and by having the batteries packed separately, preferably in a LiPo-safe bag.

Some drone pilots claim to have received more favorable treatment from the TSA by being transparent and letting them know beforehand that they are traveling with a drone. Transparency is usually a good character trait and should prove to be beneficial in such a situation.

Whatever type of drone you’re bringing or which airline you’re flying with, it’s equally important to check out the rules on drones on your destination. Keep in mind that the TSA’s rules on carrying drones may be less strict compared to those of other countries.

Drone laws for foreigners

Foreigners going on vacation in the US, doing a bit of work, or taking studies, may have the brilliant idea of bringing their drones. There are also laws regulating such activities, the complexity of which depends on what they intend to accomplish when they fly their drones.

Foreigners who wish to fly drones recreationally

The good news for foreigners who wish to fly their drones just for fun is that they need to go through pretty much the same process as any US citizen. They will simply need to register their drone with the FAA through the DroneZone website, making sure to cite their foreign address as their mailing address. The drone must also be marked visibly with the registration number, as per the usual process.

After registration, a foreign drone pilot can then proceed to fly their drones as long as they follow the same set of rules outlined in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018. By complying with all federal and local laws regarding drone flight, even a foreigner should not encounter any bumps on the road if they only wish to fly for fun.

Foreigners who wish to fly drones for profit

Foreigners who want to do commercial operations in the US have to get ready for a process that could be long and most certainly complicated. Aside from having to apply for a Part 107 drone license, a foreigner also needs to secure authorization for aircraft operations from the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Foreigners are advised to submit a letter of application to the DOT, citing the nature of the planned operations, the type of drone to be used, their country of citizenship, and other personal details. If the drone has been registered in the pilot’s country of citizenship, then the associated documents should also be included in the application.

The DOT advises that foreign drone pilots anticipate a maximum of 30 days for the application to be reviewed.

If the application gets approved, the drone pilot then needs to take and pass the Part 107 knowledge test and be granted the drone license. Right now, the FAA does not recognize any form of drone pilot registration from other countries, thus obliging foreigners to go through the same certification process as US citizens.

It’s easy to see how this process can take way too much time and a lot of work for someone who’s just visiting the country for a few weeks. Fortunately, the Part 107 rules allow for non-licensed drone pilots to fly commercially as long as they do it under the supervision of a licensed drone pilot. Conversely, foreigners can also hire the services of a Part 107-licensed drone pilot to conduct the operations in their stead.

Local drone laws

In addition to federal laws, drone pilots also need to keep themselves informed of any laws regarding drone flight that are specific to the state or city of their operations. Most of these laws were created in response to the usual public concerns on drone flight regarding safety and privacy.

Since these laws were created by states independently of each other, the laws from one locale to the next may have huge differences. This situation can prove to be challenging for commercial drone pilots who find themselves moving across different states or cities to do jobs.

Local drone laws can get quite creative and unique. For instance, Louisiana has passed HB335 that requires drone pilots to register their drones and pay a licensing fee that costs up to $100 maximum. HB 1029 in the same state also declares that the intentional use of a drone to surveil someone else’s location without their consent is considered a crime.

On the other hand, the state of Michigan has defined in SB 992 that their local laws allow the use of drones for commercial applications as long the pilot has received prior authorization from the FAA.

Texas is one of the states with the longest lists of drone laws. First off, the use of drones to hunt, count, or photograph wildlife is prohibited under Texas Administrative Code 65.152 without securing special permits. HB1481 has also made it a misdemeanor to fly a drone not more than 400 feet off the ground when above a critical infrastructure facility.

The list of local drone laws is a long one and cannot be accurately presented in just this small section of this article. By its decentralized nature, these laws can also be very dynamic, making it hard to keep track of changes happening here and there. For those who frequently fly their drones in different locations, checking for state or city-specific drone laws should be part of your prep work.

Final thoughts

With millions of drones owned and operating in the US, it’s hardly surprising that we’ve come to a point where drone flight has become regulated in both the federal and state levels. These laws are essential to know for all types of drone pilots so they continue to fly drones in a manner that is safe and legal.

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